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Mermaid and merman, 1866.
Anonymous Russian folk artist.
A mermaid is a mythological aquatic creature with a female human head and torso and the tail of an aquatic animal such as a fish. Mermaids have a broad representation in folklore, literature, and popular culture.

Overview and etymology

The word is a compound of mere, the Old English word for "sea", and maid, a woman. The male equivalent is a merman, but the term mermaid is sometimes also used for males. Various cultures throughout the world have similar figures, typically depicted without clothing.

Much like sirens, mermaids would sometimes sing to people and gods and enchant them, distracting them from their work and causing them to walk off the deck or run their ships aground. Other stories have them squeezing the life out of drowning men while attempting to rescue them. They are also said to take humans down to their underwater kingdoms. In Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, it is said that they forget that humans cannot breathe underwater, while others say they drown men out of spite.

The sirens of Greek mythology are sometimes portrayed in later folklore as mermaid-like; in fact, some languages use the same word for both bird and fish creatures, such as the Maltese word 'sirena'. Other related types of mythical or legendary creatures are water fairies (e.g., various water nymphs) and selkies, animals that can transform themselves from seals to humans.

History

Ancient Near East

The first known mermaid stories appeared in Assyria, ca. 1000 BC. Atargatis, the mother of Assyrian queen Semiramis, was a goddess who loved a mortal shepherd and in the process killed him. Ashamed, she jumped into a lake to take the form of a fish, but the waters would not conceal her divine beauty. Thereafter, she took the form of a mermaid — human above the waist, fish below — though the earliest representations of Atargatis showed her as, with their extended infancy, could not have survived early on. This idea reappeared as the aquatic ape hypothesis in the twentieth century.

A popular Greek legend has Alexander the Great's sister, Thessalonike, turn into a mermaid after she died. She lived, it was said, in the Aegeanmarker and when sailors would encounter her, she would ask them only one question: "Is Alexander the king alive?" ( ;), to which the correct answer would be: "He lives and still rules" (Greek: Ζει και βασιλεύει). Any other answer would spur her into a rage, whereupon she would transform into a Gorgon with certain doom for the ship and every sailor on board.

Lucian of Samosata in Syriamarker (2nd century AD) in De Dea Syria ("Concerning the Syrian Goddess") wrote of the Syrian temples he had visited:
"Among them - Now that is the traditional story among them concerning the temple. But other men swear that Semiramis of Babylonia, whose deeds are many in Asia, also founded this site, and not for Hera Atargatis but for her own Mother, whose name was Derketo"
"I saw the likeness of Derketo in Phoeniciamarker, a strange marvel. It is woman for half its length, but the other half, from thighs to feet, stretched out in a fish's tail. But the image in the Holy Citymarker is entirely a woman, and the grounds for their account are not very clear. They consider fishes to be sacred, and they never eat them; and though they eat all other fowls, they do not eat the dove, for she is holy so they believe. And these things are done, they believe, because of Derketo and Semiramis, the first because Derketo has the shape of a fish, and the other because ultimately Semiramis turned into a dove. Well, I may grant that the temple was a work of Semiramis perhaps; but that it belongs to Derketo I do not believe in any way. For among the Egyptians, some people do not eat fish, and that is not done to honor Derketo."


Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights (One Thousand and One Nights) includes several tales featuring "Sea People", such as Djullanar the Sea-girl. Unlike the depiction in other mythologies, these are anatomically identical to land-bound humans, differing only in their ability to breathe and live underwater. They can (and do) interbreed with land humans, the children of such unions sharing in the ability to live underwater.

In another Arabian Nights tale, "Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman", the protagonist Abdullah the Fisherman gains the ability to breathe underwater and discovers an underwater submarine society that is portrayed as an inverted reflection of society on land, in that the underwater society follows a form of primitive communism where concepts like money and clothing do not exist. Other Arabian Nights tales deal with lost ancient technologies, advanced ancient civilizations that went astray, and catastrophes which overwhelmed them.

In "The Adventures of Bulukiya", the protagonist Bulukiya's quest for the herb of immortality leads him to explore the seas, where he encounters societies of mermaids. "Julnar the Sea-Born and Her Son King Badr Basim of Persia" is yet another Arabian Nights tale about mermaids. When sailors come the mermaids sing, and some men are led straight to their doom. If they follow the mermaids' lovely and beautiful voices, they do not know what they are doing or where they're going.

British Isles

Mermaids were noted in British folklore as unlucky omens – both foretelling disaster and provoking it. Several variants of the ballad Sir Patrick Spens depict a mermaid speaking to the doomed ships; in some, she tells them they will never see land again, and in others, she claims they are near shore, which they are wise enough to know means the same thing. They can also be a sign of rough weather.

Some mermaids were described as monstrous in size, up to .

Mermaids could also swim up rivers to freshwater lakes. One day, in a lake near his house, the Laird of Lorntie saw, as he thought, a woman drowning, and went to aid her; a servant of his pulled him back, warning that it was a mermaid, and the mermaid screamed after that she would have killed him if it were not for his servant.

On occasion, mermaids could be more beneficent, giving humans means of cure.

Some tales raised the question of whether mermaids had immortal souls to answer it in the negative. The figure of Lí Ban appears as a sanctified mermaid, but she was originally a human being transformed into a mermaid; after three centuries, when Christianity had come to Ireland, she came to be baptized.

Mermen were also noted as wilder and uglier than mermaids, but they were described as having little interest in humans.

The mermaid, or syrenka, is the symbol of Warsawmarker. Images of a mermaid have been used on the crest of Warsaw as its symbol since the middle of the 14th century. Several legends associate Triton of mythology with the city, which may have been where the association with mermaids originated.

Other

Among the Neo-Taíno nations of the Caribbean the mermaid is called Aycayia. Her attributes relate to the goddess Jagua, and the hibiscus flower of the majagua tree Hibiscus tiliaceus. Examples from other cultures are the Mami Wata of West and Central Africa, the Jengu of Cameroonmarker, the Merrow of Ireland and Scotland, the Rusalkas of Russia and Ukrainemarker, the Iara from Brazil and the Greek Oceanids, Nereids, and Naiads. One freshwater mermaid-like creature from European folklore is Melusine, who is sometimes depicted with two fish tails, and other times with the lower body of a serpent. It is said in Japan that eating the flesh of a ningyo can grant unaging immortality. In some European legends mermaids are said to be unlucky.

Mermaids and mermen are also characters of Philippine folklore, where they are locally known as sirena and siyokoy, respectively. The Javanese people believe that the southern beach in Java is a home of Javanese mermaid queen Nyi Roro Kidul.

Mermaids are said to be known for their vanity, but also for their innocence. They often fall in love with human men, and are willing to go to great extents to prove their love with humans (see mermaid problem). Unfortunately, especially with younger mermaids, they tend to forget humans cannot breathe underwater. Their male counterparts, mermen, are rarely interested in human issues, but in the Finnish mythology merpeople are able to grant wishes, heal sickness, lift curses, brew magic potions, and sometimes carry a trident. Mermaids share some of the same characteristics.

Claimed sightings

Claimed sightings of dead or living mermaids have come from places such as Javamarker and British Columbiamarker. There are two Canadian reports from the area of Vancouvermarker and Victoriamarker, one from sometime between 1870 and 1890, the other from 1967.

In August 2009, the town of Qiryat Yammarker in Israel offered a prize of US$1 million for anyone who could prove the existence of a mermaid off its coast, after dozens of people reported seeing a mermaid leaping out of the water like a dolphin and doing aerial tricks before returning to the depths.

Symbolism

According to Dorothy Dinnerstein’s book, The Mermaid and the Minotaur, human-animal hybrids such as the minotaur and the mermaid convey the emergent understanding of the ancients that human beings were both one with and different from animals:
"[Human] nature is internally inconsistent, that our continuities with, and our differences from, the earth's other animals are mysterious and profound; and in these continuities, and these differences, lie both a sense of strangeness on earth and the possible key to a way of feeling at home here."


Art and literature

One influential image was created by John William Waterhouse, from 1895 to 1905, entitled A Mermaid, (see the top of this article). An example of late British Academy style artwork, the piece debuted to considerable acclaim (and secured Waterhouse's place as a member of the Royal Academymarker), but disappeared into a private collection and did not resurface until the 1970s. It is currently in the collection of Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

The most famous in more recent centuries is Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale The Little Mermaid (1836), which has been translated into many languages. Andersen's portrayal, immortalized with a famous bronze sculpture in Copenhagenmarker harbour, has arguably become the standard and has influenced most modern Western depictions of mermaids since it was published. The mermaid, as conceived by Andersen, appears to represent the Undines of Paracelsus, which also could only obtain an immortal soul by marrying a human being.

The best known musical depictions of mermaids are those by Felix Mendelssohn in his Fair Melusina overture and the three "Rhine daughters" in Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Loreleimarker, the name of one of the Rhine mermaids, has become a synonym for a siren. A more recent depiction in contemporary concert music is The Weeping Mermaid by Taiwanese composer Fan-Long Ko.

Sue Monk Kidd has written a book called The Mermaid Chair. The title comes from a mermaid who becomes a (fictional) saint.

Movie depictions include the comedy Splash (1984) starring Daryl Hannah. A 1963 episode of the hit television series Route 66, featured an episode The Cruelest Sea about a real mermaid working at Weeki Wacheemarker aquatic park. Mermaids also appeared in the popular supernatural drama television series Charmed, and were the basis of its spin-off series Mermaid. Animated films include Disney's popular musical version of Andersen's tale, and Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo.

Heraldry

Coat of arms of Warsaw
In heraldry, the charge of a mermaid is commonly represented with a comb and a mirror, and blazoned as a 'mermaid in her vanity'. Merfolk were used to symbolize eloquence in speech.

A shield and sword-wielding mermaid (Syrenka) is on the official Coat of arms of Warsaw, the capital of Polandmarker. The city of Norfolk, Virginiamarker also uses a mermaid as a symbol, and a civic art project with variously decorated mermaid sculptures has been displayed all over the municipal area. The capital city of Hamilton, Bermudamarker has the mermaid in its coat of arms, displayed across the city.

The personal coat of arms of Michaëlle Jean, Canada's Governor General, features two Simbi, mermaid-like spirits from Haitianmarker Vodou, as supporters.

Hoaxes

During the Renaissance and Baroque eras, dugongs, frauds and victims of sirenomelia were exhibited in wunderkammers as mermaids.

In the 19th century, P. T. Barnum displayed in his museum a taxidermal hoax called the Fiji mermaid. Others have perpetrated similar hoaxes, which are usually papier-mâché fabrications or parts of deceased creatures, usually monkeys and fish, stitched together for the appearance of a grotesque mermaid. In the wake of the 2004 tsunamimarker, pictures of Fiji "mermaids" circulated on the Internet as supposed examples of items that had washed up amid the devastation, though they were no more real than Barnum's exhibit.

Sirenia

Sirenia is an order of fully aquatic, herbivorous mammals that inhabit rivers, estuaries, coastal marine waters, swamps, and marine wetlands. Sirenians, including manatees and the Dugong, have major aquatic adaptations: arms used for steering, a paddle used for propulsion, hind limbs (legs) are two small bones floating deep in the muscle. They appear fat, but are fusiform, hydrodynamic, and highly muscular. Prior to the mid 19th century, mariners referred to these animals as mermaids.

Sirenomelia

Sirenomelia, also called "mermaid syndrome", is a rare congenital disorder in which a child is born with his or her legs fused together and the genitalia are reduced. This condition is about as rare as conjoined twins, affecting one out of every 100,000 live births and is usually fatal within a day or two of birth because of kidney and bladder complications. Four survivors were known to have been alive as of July 2003.

See also



References

  1. Lucian of Samosata, De Dea Syria Part 2, Chapter 14
  2. Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Mermaids", p 287. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  3. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 2, p 19, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  4. K. M. Briggs, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature, p 57 University of Chicago Press, London, 1967
  5. Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Mermaids", p 288. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  6. Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Mermaids", p 289. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  7. Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Liban", p 266-7. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  8. Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Mermen", p 290. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  9. http://www.conexioncubana.net/index.php?st=others&sk=pdef&id=a
  10. Hibiscus tiliaceus - Hau (Malvaceae) - Plants of Hawaii
  11. "Tagalog-English Dictionary by Leo James English, Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, Manila, distributed by National Book Store, 1583 pages, ISBN 971910550X
  12. Myths & Legends
  13. Folklore Examples in British Columbia
  14. "Is a mermaid living under the sea in Kiryat Yam?", Haaretz 12 Aug. 2009.
  15. Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur. New York: Harper and Row, 1963. Cited by Northstar Gallery
  16. Urban Legends Reference Pages: Mermaid to Order


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